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The Faith of Far Away Moses: Yom Kippur, 1893

Three carved stone heads on the outside of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building.

Far Away Moses was the model for the Jewish keystone head (center) on the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2016.

Note: This is part of a series of posts about Far Away Moses, a fascinating celebrity of the 19th century, who served as the model for one of the keystone heads on the Thomas Jefferson Building.  Moses, a Sephardic Jew from Constantinople, knew some of the most prominent Americans of his era, including Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain.  See the first post about Moses here.

Yom Kippur, the most solemn holiday of the Jewish year, begins at sundown. In honor of the holiday, this is my second post concerning Far Away Moses, the Jewish tour guide and merchant from Constantinople whose face adorns the outside of the Jefferson Building. Unlike the other posts in this series, this one won’t be written by me—not primarily, anyway. Mostly, it consists of two accounts of the same unusual occasion: the Yom Kippur services held in the mosque and the bazaar of the Turkish Village that was part of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Both accounts mention Far Away Moses, the manager of the bazaar, who was seen as the patriarch of the community.  Both also mention Robert Levy, the overall manager of the Turkish Village, who was a partner in the Sadullah, Levy & Veuve Souhami company, Moses’s employer. Both accounts were written by prominent Jewish journalists, and both express in moving terms the extraordinary nature of the occasion, on which a somewhat artificial community of Jews who had been imported from all corners of the Ottoman Empire celebrated their only Yom Kippur together in America.  Some of the language used is a little dated, for example for ethnic groups and geographical areas, and some of the ideas are old-fashioned too.  I’ve left Lewi and Sonneschein’s words as they wrote them, and haven’t updated spelling or grammar, except for correcting a few clear typographical errors.

Isidor Lewi (1850-1938) was a well-known journalist, and served on the editorial board of the New York Tribune. He was the editor and publisher of New Era Illustrated Magazine, a leading Jewish periodical. Lewi had once been Mark Twain’s press agent, and could not refrain from mentioning his former client’s connection with Far Away Moses.  His article was first published in Report of the Committee on Awards of the World’s Columbian Commission: Special Reports upon Special Subjects or Groups, Vol. II , 1901.

Rosa Sonneschein (1847-1932) was an Austrian-born journalist, the founder and editor of The American Jewess magazine, and an important pioneer as a journalist and a career woman in the American Jewish community. She had initially attended the World’s Columbian Exposition to participate on panels about women journalists.  In 1893, she was newly divorced from a prominent rabbi. “Nickerdown,” whom she mentions in her piece, was the pen name of Dr. Julius Wise, a journalist for the American Israelite and Chicago Israelite newspapers. Her article was first published in The American Jewess, 1896.

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Far Away Moses and one of his assistants at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c05071

Yom Kippur on the Midway

By Isidor Lewi

About four-fifths of the inhabitants of the Turkish village on the Midway Plaisance at the Chicago Exposition were Jews. Merchants, clerks, actors, servants, musicians, and even the dancing girls, were of the Mosaic faith, though their looks and garb would lead one to believe them Mohammedans. That their Judaism was not of the passive character was demonstrated by the closed booths, shops, and curio places, by the silence in the otherwise noisy theaters and the general Sabbath day air which pervaded the “Streets of Constantinople” on Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement.

A more unique observance of the day never occurred in this country, and to the few Americans who had the good fortune to be present it presented a picture of rare beauty and solemnity. The Turkish mosque was so arranged that it could be used as a Jewish house of worship also—the paraphernalia was all there and the Moslem is liberal enough to allow religious service other than his own to take place in his houses of worship—a point which he thinks the Western people would do well to ponder.

It was in this gorgeously equipped and dimly lighted mosque that the oriental Jews assembled on Tuesday evening, September 19. 1893, and read the Kol N’idra service. A screen of carved wood was placed across one corner of the mosque, and behind this the women, robed in white, with faces partially concealed behind white veils, worshiped. The men, gorgeous in varicolored silken garments, some wearing the simple fez and some the more elaborate turban, removed their shoes at the door before entering, and when they did not stand facing the East, where the cantor intoned the prayers, they sat cross-legged on the matted floor.

Each and every one had brought with him from his home the scarf which the orthodox Jew wears at prayer time and the Hebrew book of prayers. In the course of the ceremonial Mr. Robert Levy, the Ottoman concessionnaire, approached the altar and asked a blessing on the President of the United States and on the Sultan of Turkey. The services lasted long into the night, and when silence reigned all over the White City, when the robe of night and sleep covered the kaleidoscopic Midway, these Jews from the land of the Wise Men were still worshiping in the mosque.

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The bazaar was the setting for the main Yom Kippur worship service attended by both Isidor Lewi and Rosa Sonneschein. This is the bazaar on a normal workday. The white-bearded man behind the counter is Far Away Moses. From Hubert Howe Bancroft’s 1893 The Book of the Fair, a comprehensive look at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

On Wednesday, September 20, the mosque was too small to hold the worshipers, and a great bazaar, in which rugs and tapestries were on exhibition, was converted into a synagogue, and with its dark hangings, great banks of fantastic webs, its improvised altar and ark, against which the costumes of the Turks gained in brilliancy, looked even more picturesque than the mosque. Here again were the white-robed women, separated from the men by a man-high screen: here again the men in rich oriental costume, and except the few who came in full evening dress—which is nothing unusual at a day function in Turkey—no two were clad alike. They came from all parts of the Orient. Constantinople had the largest representation, though there were men from Adrianople, Tunis, Tripoli, Damascus, Smyrna, Bombay, Calcutta, from Algeria and other Eastern points, and two lone men from New York. And here it was seen how wise were those who made the Hebrew the language of prayer for the Jews. Coming from lands far apart, unfamiliar with one another’s language, unable to converse with one another in many instances, still in prayer, by the use of the same language, they were united.

In one corner, bent over his book of prayers, dressed in a brown silken robe and ample turban, stood the white-bearded, venerable “Faraway Moses” whom Mark Twain introduced to his readers years ago; at every turn stood or reclined a figure which might have been a Dore model. The fakir’s cries, the clang of cymbals, the din of tom toms, the endless drone and buzz of hurrying thousands came from the wonderful street a few steps off; above these the strains of martial music from the German village across the way, and above all rose the chant of these strangely habited men and women: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

 

Yom Kippur in the Midway

By Rosa Sonneschein

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Rosa Sonneschein. Photo from the American Jewish Archives.

IT was in the year 1893, and another Yom Kippur marked a mile-stone in my life. It was the first one that I felt myself free–free from: official obligations, free from conventionalities, free from burdens and ties, free to do as I pleased, and yet fettered, bound and fascinated by the great and glorious Day of Atonement. And as I sat in one of the Temples in Chicago, a stranger amidst a vast audience, mind and soul enchanted by divine and sacred melodies, memory began to bring back to me the Yom Kippurs of former times-the one of my early youth, when I saw my old father praying, fasting, standing all day in one place—myself a little girl in the woman’s gallery, proud of my resolve to fast from sunset until sunset, although I had not yet reached the required age to do so. Oh how big I thought myself on that Yom Kippur day! And how small I felt when, years later, I publicly fasted and secretly ate! And after another lapse of time, when the X-ravs of reform and religious enlightenment penetrated my brains, they obliterated the last vestige of reverence, and I boasted Yom Kippur after Yom Kippur, that I did not fast. And still later came some Days of Atonement when I considered it quite a sacrifice to my ancestral religion if I refused to feast publicly. All this, and much more, memory conveyed to imagination, until the present was utterly obliterated from my mind. I do not know how long this reverie lasted; but when I awoke from it, and looked around me, reality was in such contrast to fancy that I had but one desire—to hasten from the Temple. And as I felt the fresh air cooling my brow, I did mechanically what I daily did since months, took the nearest train for the World’s Exposition, entered the gate at the Woman’s Building and turned my steps into the Midway.

Was I still under some strange spell? Surely something was amiss in the gay street! Densely peopled, it seemed devoid of life; the haggling and hustling at the booths and stands seemed less ludicrous; the bewitching fascination of yesterday was missing; a maximum of labor seemed combined with a minimum of pleasure. I pondered over this impression as I walked automatically onwards in the street, “where so much reality was nasty, and so much nastiness real.” Presently I heard a faniliar voice saying: “You are just the person I wanted to see.” I looked up in “Nickerdown’s” grave and serious face. Nickerdown is always profoundly in earnest in writing and talking, deeply conscious of the rare honor he bestows in addressing one, and with an ever present sense of responsibility of what he says. It must have been something extraordinary which induced him to wish for anybody, thought I, and with serious forebodings I questioned his purpose. “I want to show you something,” said he, falling in line with me, “which you have never seen before, and perhaps never will see again. Don’t stare, but come along.” And, with my usual obliging disposition, I followed him as he piloted the way. A sudden dash through the crowd brought us into the Turkish Village. An unusual quiet predominated here; many booths were empty, the familiar faces absent, and the doors of the large Bazaar closed. And to those very doors Nickerdown turned his steps. “You watch that no acquaintance sees us, while I look for Mr. Levy. What you will behold must remain a secret and is not for the general public, nor shall you write it up for the present,” and thus admonishing me, he vanished.

I still failed to understand, but in a very few minutes Nickerdown returned with Mr. Levy, of Constantinople, proprietor of the Turkish Village. Mr. Levy knocked peculiarly at the door, which opened instantly, and suddenly, ere I was fully aware that I had passed the threshold, I was dazzled by an overpoweringly impressive scene. From the high ceiling fell in wondrous beauty the most exquisite rugs and tapestries of the Orient. The massive and yet so graceful folds revealed a wealth of color which fairly intoxicated the eye. Under this sublime canopy was placed an improvised altar, covered with gorgeous shimmering gold and silver brocade, on which lay the Holy Scrolls. To the right and to the left, in front and in the rear, stood hundreds of men of our ancient faith, clad in Oriental splendor worshipping, with talar and turban in unadulterated Jewish fashion, the God of Israel. Never had I seen the like. I remained inmovable, my senses aglow with admiration. The fragments of my religious nature combined so strongly as to subdue my whole being into worship. Imagine, amidst the most glorious achievements and products of science, history and modern industry, the vast area thronged with an international gathering, stood a handful of Oriental Jews, men who have inherited their faith on the soil where it was born, oblivious to every thing save that faith which has outlived their kingdom and their nation! Think of it, the sons of the Nile and Bosphorus worshipping on Lake Michigan; the disciples of the oldest religion of the world worshipping in the land of the youngest nation of the world, in the same unadulterated Oriental style and language as their forefathers did thousands of years ago! Though clad in the richest of Oriental garments, I recognized in the earnestly praying men the picturesque Turks which usually thronged the Midway. Though seeing them daily, I had never recognized in them co-religionists. I now knew why the Midway looked so gloomy, and, by the way, I must confess that the physical appearance of those Oriental Jews put to shame the assertion of science, that the races must intermarry in order to secure a superior physical development of mankind.

With a spasm of pride I looked at them as I listened to their slow, rhythmically measured prayer, as it came from hundreds of lips, from men young and old, whose faces revealed the holiness of the thoughts inspired by a power above. I was just observing the eyes of “Far-away Moses,” which looked as if penetrating the unknown future, that seemed so near to the gray hair and the bent form, when a burst of almost insane enthusiasm and glorification startled me. Mussaph was over, and I was politely ushered behind a screen, which shut out from view about twenty-five women clad in rich national costume, which made the young and pretty still more beautiful, but disfigured the older ones, Altogether, they were an indifferent-looking assemblage, silently gazing at the screen, or once in a while trying to peep through it. The murmur of the prayers and the peculiar modulation of the voices still vibrates in my ears, just as the view that greeted me will ever be vivid to my mind. I long for it that in years to come it may even more tyrannically dominate my brain, for I never wish to forget that one and only Yom Kippur in the Midway. It was a genuine outburst of our sacred faith—a touch of religion which makes all Jews kin.